'Follow Your Dreams': Malaysia’s First Astrophysicist Dares To Go To Infinity And Beyond

Exciting, enlightening and inspiring.

  • By: Afiqah
  • Thursday, 11 February 2021
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'Follow Your Dreams': Malaysia’s First Astrophysicist Dares To Go To Infinity And Beyond

Blazing her own trail.

To be the first at doing something can be pretty intimidating. It means going into unchartered territory. The fear of the unknown could bring with it 1,001 reasons to convince one not to pursue the road never travelled.

However, when Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman sets her mind to achieve a certain goal, you can rest assured that she will strive for it regardless of the challenges thrown her way.

We had the honour to speak to the prominent figure about her journey of many firsts, her thoughts and opinions as well as her future plans. 

The making of an icon

Truly a Malaysian icon.
As a Malaysian, you would have probably heard of the iconic Prof Mazlan or, at the very least, come across the initiatives for which she was the mastermind – whether or not you realise it is another story.

Prof Mazlan is currently serving as the Director of the International Science Council Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

Her quest to greatness – although she probably wouldn’t use that adjective to describe it – began during her schooling days. It was at the prominent Tunku Kurshiah College where she discovered her passion. 

“I was just a curious young person, I think. But when I was 15, I really wanted to do English Literature in Arts. I didn't think that science was for me,” she told us.

However, with the push from her teachers who insisted that the country was in dire need of scientists at the time, she went along with it.

“They sort of put me in that (pure science) stream. I don't think I had much say in the matter,” Prof Mazlan reminisced.

Well, it was a fruitful move. As a pure science student, she was introduced to the beauty of physics, a subject she fell in love with. The concept of the big picture is what makes physics so special in her eyes. 

That physics gal.
Unlike biology or chemistry, physics cannot be taught without incorporating the big picture.

“When you talk about physics, 'F = ma', it applies everywhere and it is obvious that it applies everywhere. And without the teacher needing to work hard to tell us, we could see ‘Oh okay, this is cool. Works everywhere," she explained. 

Prof Mazlan would later learn that it was the philosophical element that had also drawn her to literature. She just didn't know it back then. 

Going against the tide

As a bright student, she was met with a certain expectation when it came to deciding the next course of her academic venture.

“At that time, the most prestigious thing to do was medicine. And they wanted me to do medicine, of course,” she recalled.

However, knowing herself well enough, she stood her grounds and followed her passion. She pursued her studies in physics as a Colombo Plan scholar at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. 

Her family was supportive of her decision. Her father, in particular, was fine with whatever she wanted to do as long as it was in science. 

She did it her way.
It was only during her third year that she learnt about astrophysics, a field that would greatly shape her future. She made the effort to read more about the subject and “that's when I rediscovered the philosophy of science through astrophysics." 

Her interest was actually met with doubts and discouragement from many. Deemed as an unusual field, she was frequently questioned about why she’d want to carry on with astrophysics. Plus, they say, “not many people are employed as astrophysicists.”

Her Malaysian friends also mentioned how there was no astrophysics career in Malaysia, which makes the path seem even less appealing.

To that, the badass Prof Mazlan thought, “Tak ada dekat Malaysia, tak ada masalah (Non-existent in Malaysia, no problem). There’s the whole world.” *Mic drop* 

The University of Otago, Prof Mazlan’s alma mater.
Prof Mazlan would return to the University of Otago to pursue her PhD. in physics. Guess what? Even before she completed her PhD., she had already received an offer letter to teach at the then newly set up Physics department at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). 

While a job offer is already a blessing in itself for many, this one is of greater significance than usual. 

As a Colombo Plan scholar, Prof Mazlan was required to attend a teacher training course for one year and teach for a certain number of years. However, she knew her destiny was not in the classroom.

Despite already making up her mind on her refusal to proceed with this route, she did attend a few classes at the training institute. It only reaffirmed her stance though.

“It wasn't the kind of intellectual stimulation I was looking for,” she said.

Prof Mazlan acknowledged that she took a big risk when she left the teacher training, returned to Dunedin and signed up for the PhD. program.

“I was prepared if Colombo Plan fined me and asked me to return the money.”

She had faith that things would work out and that she would make it work. 

She did it!
Her faith didn’t fail her. Colombo Plan eventually agreed to allow her to pursue her PhD. if she could show proof that she could find an employer in Malaysia. That offer letter from UKM sealed the deal. She was ‘released’ to UKM.

(Fun fact: In 1981, she became the first woman to earn a PhD in Physics at the University of Otago since its establishment in 1869. Not only that, but she would also come home as the country’s first astrophysicist. #NowYouKnowLah)

The role of an astrophysicist 

“I knew I joined UKM as a physicist. I had no expectation that I would continue as an astrophysicist,” she said.

But she did. On what exactly are the responsibilities of an astrophysicist, well, we learnt that there are plenty. 

Malaysia’s first astrophysicist.
“Some astrophysicists are what we call theoretical astrophysicists. They mainly sit on the computer and do modelling – physical modelling, computer modelling. All theoretical work: those are theoretical astrophysicists,” explained Prof Mazlan.

“But there are some astrophysicists who go to the observational site. And normally, we call them astronomers as well. They go to the telescope and actually make observations or they use observations from spacecrafts. There are so many spacecrafts today that are generating data on the universe,” she added.

Prof Mazlan is one of those who get in on the action. The observatory is not an unfamiliar sight or site for her.

“Of course, we already have a schedule of what we want to observe. Because the sky is changing every day, we need to change our observing schedule as when the celestial object comes up,” she reminisced. 

Not your everyday telescope.
She also told us that the process back then involved large glass plates that had to be inserted in the telescope.

“I always had to have some brawny guy to do it for me. Always a damsel in distress,” she said of herself with a laugh.

Once that’s settled, she would head to the computing room with the others where they would do the tracking of the object.  

“And normally, that takes me into a warmer room. But as long as I was working with the telescope, if the temperature outside was -15, then I would be working in -15 temperature.” 

Despite the extensive preparations, there are also occasions when things just don't work out.

“You might have set something up because there is this celestial phenomenon that's going to happen next month. And you spent all your time laying the wires and all to make sure you can observe it and just three days before, some cow comes and disturbs the setup or some rat eats up your wires.

"All the three years of work – not ruined – but you have to redo certain things. And we know the celestial phenomenon is happening in three days’ time. Serendipity and luck come with it,” Prof Mazlan explained.  

Prof Mazlan in action.
Fast-forward to the world today, many of the astrophysicists need not go through all that for they are now able to gather the data online.  

Prof Mazlan affirmed that in the study of astronomy, besides having the intellect, extreme patience and dedication are must-have traits. The ability to stick it out – something today’s generation ought to develop and practice – is essential.

Prof Mazlan mentioned archaeological dig as an example. Young people just need to learn to stick it out. 

"Knowing that there is a whole civilisation underneath the sand, what do you do? Do you take an excavator and just excavate? You don't. You actually have to brush your way through 2 feet of dust. And how much patience do you need for that? A heck of a lot. This is science – you do not cut corners, you dedicate yourself to those things.” 

Prof Mazlan also cited NASA’s New Horizons as a case in point. 

Artist impression: NASA’s New Horizons as it approaches the Plutonian system.
“We were very keen to learn about Pluto because Pluto is so far away. We cannot even take good pictures, especially when our technology wasn’t that good. We just had to send a spacecraft, so this group; they designed this spacecraft called New Horizons.

"It had all this fancy equipment and they launched it. To cut the story short, it didn't reach Pluto until nine years later. What do you do with these nine years? You could do a lot but what I’m saying is that in astronomy, things take a dreadfully long time to happen.”

What’s so important about astrophysics? 

For a study on something so distant, astrophysics sure has a major role on matters that are near and dear to us here on Earth.   

When we asked Prof Mazlan about the importance of astrophysics, she said that would depend on what one intends to learn about the cosmos.

“You’d want to track a comet because you want to see what its movements are and then you can estimate better what this comet is going to do. A lot of people talk about near-Earth objects and these near-Earth objects must be tracked because we want to make sure they don't for some reason, change their orbit and crash on Earth,” she further elaborated. Yes, it is exciting (and serious) stuff.

However, there are also mundane things of which she cited looking at the galaxy as an example.

Toughing it out.
“You want to see what’s happening with the galaxy – are the stars exhibiting odd behaviour and if they are, why. And to do that, you got to look at the galaxy over many years,” she explained. 

“When you make one observation in astronomy, it has some significance.”

However, Prof Mazlan stated, “The one that really has significance is when you track that same object over many years, many decades. Then, you learn a lot more.”

Taking it to the next level

Well, being an astrophysicist isn’t the only cool feat Prof Mazlan has achieved.

In 1999, she was appointed as the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). Yes, there exists a dedicated office on that level for such matters! She was based in Vienna then.

Prof Mazlan would be reappointed in 2007 after working on Malaysia’s Angkasawan program (which we will get to in the latter part of this article)!

Making a difference in and out of this planet!
If you thought that there isn’t such a thing as space law, well, you thought wrong. And it is space law that is under the purview of the UNOOSA Director.

“There have to be laws. Otherwise, everybody is doing their own thing which is not good for the management of space,” Prof Mazlan said.

She also gave us a quick lesson about space law: “Space is a common province of all humankind. What does that mean? This means that you cannot go to space and say this is mine. You cannot go to the moon and say this is mine. When somebody sells you a piece of the moon, they say that this has been bought for you; it’s utter rubbish. Or they can say there’s part of the sky; I have bought this many stars for you – utter rubbish. They cannot. You cannot own anything in space.”

On a lighter note, she does acknowledge that all the ‘purchasing’ and ‘ownership’ is good fun. 

A big part of the responsibility Prof Mazlan held at the office was to set up the parliamentary services for countries to come together, debate and make law in a very constructive manner.

​“That was the most exciting part of my job,” she told us. It’s safe to say that she had acted as a peacemaker on many occasions. 

Working on the Angkasawan Program

Prof Mazlan returned to Malaysia from Vienna in 2002. She was tasked with coming up with a national space program. 

She was actively interacting with the press then.

“And I noticed that each time I talked to people or the press, they would tell me, ‘Okay, now we got something like NASA, when are we going to launch the first Malaysian to space?’ consistently.”

It was clear to her that the public was not too keen about the satellites that were going to be launched. She gets it though. One can’t quite relate to satellites.

“But a person in space is something different.”

An astronaut generates the buzz.
However, she kept telling them it wasn’t the time yet since there were no clear benefits of sending a Malaysian to space.

“But then after I’ve been asked this three or four times, I think I’m missing some things. Of course, then I worked out what it was,” she said.

Tun Dr Mahathir played a role in that revelation. Prof Mazlan had asked him for his thoughts on the matter.

“He said to me, in a country’s history, it has to have certain milestones that allow people to come together, that traverses your economic status, your race, your gender, your profession, something that really inspires the people, so they feel a part of it. He said, ‘The Angkasawan Program' that sends someone to space is such a milestone. And that's why people are asking you.’”

When asked by the then premier on whether or not the nation is ready for such a program, she replied, “If you asked me this question which we did ask in 1985, we said no because we didn't have anything to do with space – nothing on the ground, so why would we just send somebody on a glamour trip?

"That’s why even (when) the Russians had offered it at some cost, we recommended no. You ask me the question today (that was in 2002), I would say the answer is yes.” 

Finding ways to make it work.
Her answer was made with consideration of the good public education facility complemented with the space science curriculum in primary and secondary schools that were in place, the establishment of the National Planetarium and also, the remote-sensing satellite made by our own engineers that had been launched – all of which were a testament to the fact that the groundwork has been laid out. 

Read more: Meet The M'sian Rocket Scientist Who Is On A Mission To Improve The Livelihood Of Mankind

The reason Prof Mazlan was rather hesitant about proposing such an idea was because it would require a lot of money. At that time, to send an astronaut to space would cost around USD20 million (approximately RM80 million then). However, she was encouraged by Tun Mahathir to figure out how to raise the sum through other sources and not the government.

“That was his way (of saying) we need an astronaut program.”

Prof Mazlan oversaw its development in the early days.
Prof Mazlan did her homework. 

“I looked at a few things and I realised that the Ministry of Defence was looking for offset programs with Russia because we were planning on purchasing some jet fighter planes. Ours needed to be upgraded. 

And so, they asked for proposals and I put in a proposal for Angkasawan, (an) astronaut program that the Russians would pay; that we would get it from the Russians sort of free of charge under this offset.”

Prof Mazlan made it clear that “Actually, we didn't spend a single cent on the training and the launch of Angkawasan. We got that free through an offset program. You can argue that we did pay for it in the sense that we paid for that offset program but the astronaut program per se; we did not come up with USD20 million out of the government’s coffers.” 

She figured out a way to make it happen.
It took about three to four years of extremely hard work and precise planning before Malaysia finally had its first angkasawan. The preparation was intense. It was so detailed that it even covered matters like the insurance and what job the astronaut would come back to. 

On 10th October 2007, Malaysia witnessed its first astronaut, Dato’ Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, launch into space. 

A bittersweet memory

Surely, after all the hard work, the Angkasawan program would be a sweet memory for Prof Mazlan, right? Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

The Angkasawan program turned out to be a bittersweet experience for Prof Mazlan. 

To those who wondered why Prof Mazlan left at the point they thought was the peak of her career, she refuted it, saying, “It was the peak of Sheikh Muszaphar’s career but not mine. I had many more things to do and the astronaut program was only part of it.

"And when people assume that that was the highlight of my career and thought that I was desperate for it to be such, I don't understand it.” 

She admitted that it wasn’t entirely a sweet ride. 

Through her lens, she saw it as science, culture, youths and education. However, some viewed it as a “public relations glamour project.”

It wasn't so glamorous behind the scenes.
“And so, I was butting heads with people who only wanted to focus on the glamour side of things. And I fought so hard that it almost killed me in terms of – I felt my integrity was being questioned and things like that. And that’s why I left the country in 2007.”

It wasn’t difficult for her to find a reason to leave. She was headhunted yet again and would take on the post as the UNOOSA director for the second time.

On her take regarding how the Angkasawan program fared, she said, “If you go by what we were supposed to achieve which was public relations exercise, I think we were super successful. How many people don't know that there was an astronaut? Everybody knew.”

In fact, there was a time that lasted for several months when Sheikh Muszaphar was more popular than Siti Nurhaliza. To have an astronaut superseding a celebrity in the eyes of the young people was certainly a big achievement. 

Having been able to show the young generation that it is possible to achieve dreams was also a success in Prof Mazlan’s books. And of course, establishing the procedures for fasting in space and how the Malaysian Muslim astronaut would perform his ibadah was a major accomplishment.

“We came up with a fatwa on ibadah in space which became very famous throughout the world as a soft law in space.”

The education aspect was also a success. Although Prof Mazlan admitted that it was a last-minute item “because somebody realised that education was important – not just (the) glamour”, they did succeed in rolling it out. 

The impact afterwards is where Prof Mazlan pinpoints the flop. The failure lies in the lack of advocacy for space and science subsequent to the Angkasawan program. She noted that it is beyond her control.

When she left, there was an absence of a visionary leader. Prof Mazlan has always had a long-term vision. As it is, she still has a 30-year plan, knowing which eclipses she’d want to see in the years to come.

“So if you asked me if it was a success, in my terms, it was a resounding success. But you ask me the follow-up; that was the failure. People will say I’m arrogant, just up to my point, I say it’s a success. After that, it’s a failure. I leave it to the people to judge for themselves. I’m not being arrogant or anything like that but just judge for yourself.”

Working as an alien ambassador

‘Rumoured UN Amb for Aliens’ is part of Prof Mazlan’s Twitter bio. And yes,  there most certainly is an interesting story behind it. It happened during her stint at the UNOOSA.

During the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society – a major scientific organisation of which “anybody who’s anybody in the science in the UK was a member (and that includes Isaac Newton)” – wanted to look at issues that have a profound impact on the human race but not discussed enough at a very serious level. 

Our very own (rumoured) alien ambassador!
Now, let’s just take a moment to imagine the impact of discovering extraterrestrial life – even if it’s just bacteria. It would certainly make a difference in our beliefs, culture and readings to name a few.

“They wanted a group of experts to sit down and explore this. If it were bacteria, how would we handle that? But what if it was intelligent life, how would we handle that – so they had to look at the entire gamut of issues,” Prof Mazlan stated.

One of the effective ways to raise global awareness is to take it to the United Nations and debate it at the General Assembly.

“Once you get a debate in the General Assembly, for us, it means that it has very credible science behind it.” 

An interesting turn of events.
While they had brought together a group of scientists to talk about the matter, they were also looking for ways to bring up the discussion to a debate in the General Assembly.

That’s where Prof Mazlan came in. Her assistance was needed in London.

“And so, I thought ‘Yea, sure we could do this. And I gave them an example of near-Earth objects – of how it became a serious, scientific discussion in the UN.”

Near-Earth objects seemed like an issue that could just be shrugged off.

“We brought it to a situation where the General Assembly debated it and said if there was a rock that was going to fall onto the Earth, who would make the decision as to where – if we can divert it; who should divert it, where should it be diverted. It’s a real-life situation.”

You know it’s a big deal when a topic is raised at the United Nations General Assembly.
“And if you knew that this rock is coming and next month, it’s going to cause millions of death, don't you think that the United Nations should go in there and discuss? Or even better still, if we knew that it was going to come in two years’ time and would cause a lot of distress or havoc or loss of lives, we have two years to decide,” she added.

With that, what was deemed trivial or perhaps, silly, was then presented as a potential threat to mankind that required serious attention.

“After four to five years of debate, we finally came up with an SOP on what we should do. NASA took it up and many observatories around the world promise to monitor – it is a global network of monitoring asteroids,” Prof Mazlan enlightened us.

That happening is what they wanted to do with the topic of extraterrestrial life. Having done it before, Prof Mazlan guided the way.  

“But then once I did that, some people in the media decided that this was a thing the United Nations would do – talk about aliens. And they decided that I was going to be the UN Ambassador for Aliens. It’s all hearsay – all what you call today fake news.”

She hadn’t caught wind of the rumour when a member of the media came up to her and mentioned it. It surely took her by surprise. That conversation ended up with her having a big laugh and saying, “Oh that's rather cool but no, it’s not true.”

On whether she believes in aliens, Prof Mazlan stated: “Yeah – aliens as in extraterrestrial life. Look it up. It’s on the Internet. Everybody knows there has to be extraterrestrial life.”

Since we were on the topic of aliens and outer space, we also asked her about the possibilities of living on Mars. It’s something she believes will happen. It’s only a matter of time.

She stated that the young people of this era will live long enough to see a human on Mars.

“At least 10 years ago, we were already saying that the person who is going to land on Mars, the persons were already born.”

And if she were to receive an invitation by Elon Musk to go to Mars, she would accept it with no hesitation!

Moving forward

We are certain that Prof Mazlan’s list of ‘been there, done that’ is a long one. But she is not showing any signs of slowing down.

Prof Mazlan sees herself carrying on with her advocacy for ArtScience.  She also has plans to support open science here in Malaysia.

The other thing on her list is to initiate the return to tropical sciences.

She has gone places!
“I think most of us in this country have forgotten how good we were in tropical sciences. We led in the field of palm oil and rubber. And we led in many medical researches of the tropics.

"The excitement over nanotech and artificial intelligence has clouded the view of the potential of the tropics. Holding on to the belief that 'the future belongs to the tropics',” she said.

A word of advice

If she could give her 20-year-old self ad advice, she would still say the same thing: follow your dreams.

“I was following my dreams already when I was 20. And now at almost 70, I would say the same thing because nothing changed between this 50-year period. I’m still following my dreams. I’m still dreaming about lots of things.”

Prof Mazlan also spelt out her approach.

Follow your dreams. Prof Mazlan did and still is.
“What I’ve done is look to see what are the needs of the community, the country.

“Wherever you are, you have to see what are the needs of your community. It does not matter whatever field you are in. Look at your immediate community. What are the great advantages that are in your community? How do you then enhance that? Of course, every community has issues. So, how do you continue to solve those issues?”

You could be stepping up from the national level to the international scene and this still applies. 

“I had nobody to look up to when I was young but I looked around me. Young people nowadays have many to look up to. Then, look at your own talent and what drives you. Only you know what that passion is and how it matches with your talent.” 

“Self-discovery doesn’t end until you die.”

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